Sunday, 4 July 2021

All at Sea - John Company's Indiamen & Packet Ships

East Indiamen Running Up-Channel - Mark Myers

The term West or East Indiaman in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era generally described a merchant ship in the service of, either by charter or licence, one of the European trading companies set up by the Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, French, Swedish and of course British, to administer their trading interests in the West and East Indies and the Americas.

My latest additions to the collection, the Warlord merchantmen depicted here as typical Indiamen or Packet Ships of the period.

The largest mercantile fleet was British and Britain was very dependent on that fleet to provide the core of trained seamen for its navy and service its overseas interests to help it pay for its war expenditure with, for example, Britain's West Indian commerce contributing about ten percent to her larger trading economy and her investments in the West Indies generating seven to ten percent of her annual income.

This wealth potential overseas also provided the impetus for the war on the trade against Britain's enemies at sea with for example the potential capture of Saint-Domingue in the early stages of the Revolutionary War providing the British a worth while opportunity to more than make up for the loss of the American colonies.

The East Indiaman Princess Royal 1770 - John Cleverley (National Maritime Museum)
Of 878 tons she made four trips to India before being sold off in 1782 for breaking up

East Indiamen tended to be large veseels, 1100 to 1400 tons and more stoutly built for their long routes to and from the east, with some vessels taken over by the Royal Navy to be used as fourth-rates such as HMS Weymouth 56-guns, launched in 1795 and commissioned by the navy the following year, indicating how stoutly built they could be, with the ability to carry heavy guns for their own protection when carrying goods and passengers.

Commodore Dance's Celebrated Action in the Straits of Malaca, 15th February 1804 - Robert Dodd

In addition Indiamen were very often decorated and painted very similarly to that of warships of the period with real or false gun ports painted along their sides to help maintain the disguise to any potential privateer or enemy cruizer; so much so that the French Admiral Linois was convinced that he was up against a squadron of Royal Navy warships at the Battle of Pulo Aura on the 15th February 1804, rather than the China Fleet carrying millions of pounds worth of valuable trade goods, as Commodore Nathaniel Dance's aggressive tactics whilst leading the Honourable East India Company convoy of twenty-nine merchantmen and one brig, drove off the French squadron of one ship of the line, the 74-gun Marengo, two frigates a corvette and a brig.

The drama of the historical battle is brilliantly portrayed in Patrick O'Brian's novel HMS Surprise, part of the Aubrey-Maturin series of books in which Captain Jack Aubrey leads the merchant fleet in its defence against Admiral Linois.

The crews of Indiamen were not usually large enough to put up the kind of fight an enemy could expect from a similar sized man of war, but they were often prepared to fight hard to defend their ships in one to one action with privateers and had to be treated with a certain level of respect if they were to be taken with out too high a price in casualties and damage to the privateer.

Some classic examples of these one on one actions between Indiamen and privateers would include the 40-gun Indiaman Kent against the French privateer 18-gun brig Confiance captained by Robert Surcouf when the two ships met on the 7th October 1800 off Calcutta.

William James in 'The Naval History of Great Britain - Volume Three described the action that followed;

'On the 9th of October the honourable East India Company's ship Kent, of 26 guns (20 long 12, and six long 6 pounders), commanded by Captain Robert Rivington, being off the Sandheads, on her way from England to Bengal, fell in with the French ship-privateer Confiance, of 20 or 22 long 8-pounders, commanded by M. Surcouff, a very able and experienced officer.

An action immediately ensued, and was maintained with great bravery by the Indiaman, for one hour and 47 minutes; during which the two vessels were frequently foul of each other. At length the Kent was carried by boarding; her crew, besides their inferior numbers, being very ill-supplied with weapons of defence, while the assailants were all armed with sabres, pikes, and pistols. After having given decided proofs of his bravery, Captain Rivington received, at the moment of boarding, a musket-shot through his head.

Besides the loss of her captain, the Kent had 13 men killed, including four or five of her passengers, and 44 men wounded, including also several passengers.

East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance - Ambroise Louis Garneray

The Confiance was a ship of 490 tons, and had, it is said, a complement of 250 men. The Kent was a new ship, of 820 tons, and had probably about 90 or 100 men in crew, exclusive of 38 male and three female passengers. Seven or eight of those passengers had been taken from the Queen Indiaman, when she was consumed by fire at St. Salvador. So long and manful a resistance with such limited means, was very honourable to the officers, crew, and passengers of the Kent. In the following month M. Surcouff arrived with his prize at the Isle of France.'

James goes on to describe a possible what if to this scenario;

'We may remark, in passing, what an advantage the Kent would have derived, had she mounted on her quarter-deck and forecastle a tier of 18 or 24-pounder carronades, instead of long sixes. A few discharges of grape from the former would probably have induced the Confiance to keep at long-shot, and then the Kent's 12-pounders, well plied, would either have captured or repulsed her.'

Another classic action involving an East Indiaman would be the saga of the taking of the Indiaman Lord Nelson 26-guns, on the 14th August 1803 by the French privateer frigate Bellone 34-guns off Cape Clear, Ireland.

Although the Bellone carried more guns than the Lord Nelson, she had a lighter broadside with twenty-four 8-pdr long guns against the Lord Nelson's twenty 18-pdrs, but the Bellone had a motivated privateer crew of 260 men versus 102 men on the Indiamen.

William James in 'The Naval History of Great Britain - Volume Three described the action that followed;

'An action ensued, and lasted an hour and a half, when the privateer succeeded in carrying her opponent by boarding, but not until the Bellone had been once repulsed, and the Indiaman sustained a loss of five men killed and 31 wounded. Placing an officer and 41 men in charge of the Lord Nelson, the Bellone proceeded with her towards Corunna.

Capture of the East Indiaman Lord Nelson by the Bellone - Auguste Mayer

On the 20th a British frigate chased the two ships, and would have retaken the Indiaman, had not the Bellone, trusting to her great sailing powers, led away the former. The Lord Nelson, now alone, was attacked on the 23rd by an English cutter-privateer, of fourteen 6-pounders ; and the latter, highly to the credit of her officers and crew, maintained a two hours' action before she was beaten off.

On the 25th, at 1 p.m., in latitude 46° north, longitude 12° west, the British 18-gun brig-sloop Seagull (sixteen 24-pounder carronades and two sixes), Captain Henry Burke, discovered to leeward and chased the Lord Nelson. At 5 p.m. the latter hoisted French colours, and fired a gun. At 7 p.m. the Seagull having got within gun-shot, an action commenced; which continued, with very slight intermission, until 6 a.m. on the 26th; when the brig, having received two shot between wind and water, had her masts and rigging much wounded and cut up, and her foreyard shot away in the slings, hauled off to refit. At 8 h. 30m., just as the Seagull, having replaced her damaged rigging, was about to renew the action, a British squadron, of four sail of the line, under Captain Sir Edward Pellew, in the 80-gun ship Tonnant, hove in sight. By noon, or a little after, the Colossus, the advanced ship of Sir Edward's squadron, overtook and recaptured the Lord Nelson. 

In her two actions, particularly in that with the Seagull, the Indiaman had received considerable damage in hull, masts, and rigging: her loss by the brig's fire has not been recorded. The loss sustained by the Seagull amounted to two seamen killed, and seven seamen and one marine wounded.'

The East Indiaman York and other Vessels c 1788 - Thomas Luny (National Maritime Museum) 

These large well armed merchantmen were also needed for other vital markets such as the Baltic, a major source of naval stores and materials such as tar and timber for masts and yards and of course the sugar islands in the Caribbean where sturdy ships were required to tackle the huge seas that could be encountered crossing the Atlantic. 

The Royal Navy was responsible for convoying merchantmen to and from key anchorages around the globe with the exception of faster ships permitted to sail independently, such as the Packet Ships, so called because as well as carrying passengers and cargo would also be entrusted with letters and packets to persons in stations abroad and thus services such as the Falmouth Packet operating across the Atlantic to stations in North America and Caribbean became vital communication links.

View of Bridgetown and part of Carlisle Bay in the Island of Barbados - Watercolour by Edward Pelham Brenton (National Maritime Museum)
The view shows the main assembly area for richly laden convoys whose protection became a key function of the forces stationed in the area.

The West Indian Packet Ship Antelope was launched in 1780 and was captured twice by the French in 1781 and 1782, when she was ransomed back on the first occasion and purchased by Captain William Kempthorne in 1783 at the end of the American War on the second; but it was for her famous action with the French privateer schooner Atlante that she is best remembered for.

The 'Antelope' Packet captures the French Privateer 'Atlanta' off Jamaica 2nd December 1793 - Geoff Shaw (National Maritime Museum, Cornwall)

The Antelope was some 190 tons and armed with six 3-pounder long guns manned by a crew of twenty-seven men, however at the time of the action with Atlante she had lost four crewmen to 'fever' and two others were ill in their hammocks.

To quote William James' Naval History of Great Britain - Volume One;

'On the 1st of December his Britannic majesty's packet the Antelope, Captain Curtis, being off Cumberland harbour, in Cuba, on her way to England, from Port-Royal, Jamaica, which port she had quitted three days previous, fell in with two French schooner-privateers, of formidable appearance. The packet immediately bore up for Jamaica, and was followed, under all sail, by the privateers. The Atalante, one of the two, outsailing her consort, continued the chase alone. During that and the following day, until 4 p.m., the packet rather gained upon her pursuer; but the wind suddenly failing, the latter took to her sweeps, and soon swept up alongside of the Antelope. After the exchange of a few shots, the schooner sheered off.

On the 2nd, at 5 a.m., it still being calm, the Atalante again swept up, and, on reaching her opponent, grappled her on the starboard side. The privateer then poured in a broadside, and attempted, under cover of the smoke, to carry the Antelope by boarding; but the crew of the latter drove back the assailants with great slaughter.

Among the sufferers by the privateer's broadside, was the packet's commander, Mr. Curtis, who fell to rise no more; as did also the steward, and a French gentleman, a passenger. The first-mate, too, was shot through the body, but survived. The second-mate having died of the fever soon after the packet had sailed from Port-Royal, the command now devolved upon Mr. Pasco, the boatswain, who, with the few brave men left, assisted by the passengers, repulsed repeated attempts to board, made, at intervals, during the long period that the vessels remained lashed together. At last, the privateersmen, finding they had caught a tartar, cut the grapplings, and attempted to sheer off. The boatswain, observing this, ran aloft, and lashed the schooner's square-sail yard to the Antelope's fore shrouds.

Immediately a well-directed volley of small arms was poured into the privateer, and the crew called for quarter. This, notwithstanding the Atalante had fought with the red or bloody flag at her mast-head, to indicate that no quarter would be shown by her, was granted, and possession was forthwith taken of the prize.

… Her (Antelope) total loss in the action was three killed, and four wounded. The Atalante mounted eight 3-pounders; and her complement was 65 men, composed of French, Americans, and Irish. Of these the first and second captains and 30 men were killed, and 17 officers and men wounded. The Atalante had been fitted out at Charleston, in the United States. The Antelope now carried her prize in triumph to Annotto Bay, Jamaica, where the two vessels arrived on the morning succeeding the action.

So as these examples clearly show these ships should not be thought of as simply targets, and can make for interesting scenarios in their own right

The Warlord models of a large and medium sized ship rigged merchantmen provide the basis for my Indiaman and Packet Ship interpretations and the older style of rig with the lateen mizzen together with the rather ornate fittings on the stern galleries and side rails seem to me to work well in capturing the look of these ships, with a white painted lower hull acting as a useful indicator that the model represents a merchantman rather than a man of war, or does it?

This simple application will also allow for those occasions where privateers and cruizers mistook a man of war for an Indiaman and had the occasional rude shock, not to mention picking a fight with 'tartar' to quote James and regretting the decision to engage.

Next up; Carolyn, Will and I resume our exploring of Dartmoor, its classic landscape and ancient monuments and I make further additions to the All at Sea collection with the Dutch contributing some frigates and brigs before I start work on some extra ship-rigged sloops.

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